Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Updated: Thu, 28 Oct 2021 11:43:17 GMT
Another liberal dream was sacrificed in the cause of saving Joe Biden's presidency.
The Democrats ditched paid family leave Wednesday from their vast social safety net program in yet another cave to Senate moderates, dealing a shattering blow to House progressives -- not to mention millions of Americans who must choose between their jobs and caring for newborns or elderly relatives.
The latest jolt to the sweeping bill that once drew comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal followed the removal of measures on tuition-free community college and climate -- two campaign priorities for Biden last year -- and came as negotiations drag on in increasingly frantic fashion.
Desperate for a win before he flies off on a critical foreign trip, Biden plans to visit the House Democratic Caucus meeting on Thursday morning to beseech progressives to pass a parallel bipartisan infrastructure bill they have been holding up as leverage on his spending bill, which set out to transform health care, home care for the sick and elderly, the fight against climate change and to alleviate the plight of working Americans.
Biden will provide details of the $1.75 trillion economic and climate package to House Democrats, the White House said. But not all Democrats have signed off on the framework, two people familiar with the plan cautioned to CNN's Katilan Collins, even though the President believes it's a consensus all Democrats should be able to support.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, questioned whether there was any point in Biden showing up if he cannot bring a solid framework for the spending plan that the Senate would stick to.
"If there isn't a deal, which is what I am still hearing ... then I am not sure what the President is going to present to us," Jayapal told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Wednesday evening.
The Washington state Democrat's comment was a sign that House progressives are not willing to cave.
But it left two fundamental questions that are now critical to the future of Biden's agenda. First, will the brutal paring down of the social safety net plan, all in an effort to appease two Senate moderates, further undermine support for passing it among the large bloc of House progressives? Theirs are crucial votes in a chamber that Democrats only narrowly control.
And will what is now a much-diminished measure so disappoint Democratic base voters and independents that it will fail to have the significant political impact the party needs to stave off a Republican rout in next fall's midterm elections? One thing is for sure: if progressives don't eventually come aboard, even if they are dissatisfied with the compromises made to get the package through the Senate, they could inflict huge damage on Biden's already wobbling presidency.
The loss of paid family leave was the latest extreme disappointment for liberal Democrats desperate to leverage what could be a short grip on power to fundamentally reshape an economy currently tilted toward the wealthy. Its sudden demise left yet another strong impression that Biden and his Democratic Party are in disarray in Washington after months of failing to move his agenda. And it came on a day when various lawmakers came up with dueling ways to pay for the whole measure, some of which were quickly rejected, that looked a lot like throwing spaghetti on a wall in a desperate bid to pass something -- anything.
Colleagues are 'pissed' at Manchin
The jettisoning of family leave was the latest dramatic twist in a bitter and interminable bargaining process mostly between House progressives and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Manchin's refusal to budge on paid family leave caused extreme frustration among his fellow Democrats. "People are pissed he wants to take out paid family leave," one senator told CNN's Manu Raju. Manchin, however, said that such a fundamental change to US social policy should not be passed in an already huge spending bill lawmakers are now negotiating and hoping to pass through a budget process known as reconciliation.
"To expand social programs when you have trust funds that aren't solvent -- they're going insolvent. I can't explain that. It doesn't make sense to me," Manchin told reporters.
But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who wrote much of a $3.5 trillion spending plan that now looks likely to end up much nearer Manchin's $1.5 trillion ceiling, is increasingly disgruntled with his colleagues.
"The problem is with members here who, although they are very few in number, they are a significant minority, think that they have a right to determine what the rest of the Congress should be doing," Sanders said.
"The minority should not be dictating to the majority."
The news that paid family leave is being taken out of the bill was greeted with dismay by progressive campaigners outside Congress. Molly Day, executive director for Paid Leave for the US, called the news "outrageous and shameful."
"A budget deal that does not include paid leave fails working families and will not allow us to build back better," Day said in a statement.
While most of the Democratic Senate was on board with Biden's previous, more expansive plans, Manchin and Sinema have extraordinary power since the 50-50 breakdown of the chamber means Biden needs both of their votes.
But in the cause of getting them on board, progressives have had to watch as a succession of their priorities have been scrapped, including an effort to roll back ex-President Donald Trump's tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. A $150 billion program to wean utilities off carbon fuels is also gone. As is the promise for free community college that Biden touted on the campaign trail and is one of his most treasured proposals.
Another priority, advanced by Sanders, that includes vision, dental and hearing coverage for Medicare recipients, may also be on the chopping block.
Liberal dreams evaporate
Even before the latest negotiations on the spending bill, progressives had watched many of their hopes for Biden's term disappear.
A bipartisan push for police reform in the wake of George Floyd's murder fizzled. Several moderate Democrats are balking at changing filibuster rules to pass a voting rights and election overhaul to respond to anti-democratic power grabs in Republican-led states that will make it easier to interfere in elections. Biden also failed in an earlier push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
These busted dreams do not take into account the fact that Biden's spending plan -- if it does eventually pass -- will include some of the most significant social and climate reforms in decades. They include free universal pre-school, which could help millions of kids and parents. Expanded Affordable Care Act subsidies and housing subsidies appear likely to survive. As does an extension of a child tax credit that Democrats say lifted millions of people out of poverty -- although a single year of extra funding pales against what progressives wanted. And despite the loss of the green power plan opposed by coal state senator Manchin, $500 billion in climate change spending is included.
In essence, progressives will be forced to make a decision faced by political leaders of all stripes for eons: Do they swallow their disappointment about not getting everything they want in order to lock in real if more incremental change?
Biden's excruciating experience trying to steer his agenda into law underscores that while Democrats have a technical majority in both the House and the Senate -- with Vice President Kamala Harris' deciding vote -- they do not effectively enjoy a stable governing majority. That's because the wish list of lawmakers from blue states must pass muster with two senators: Manchin, whose home state overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and Sinema, who is from a purple battleground and has an idiosyncratic and somewhat mysterious approach to legislating. Yet the consequences for not acting on Biden's agenda -- even if it seems to diminish by the day -- are daunting.
If Democrats cannot show their own voters that they are able to wield the power they were granted in 2020 to forge meaningful change, their hopes of a strong turnout from the base in next year's midterm elections could be dashed.
Already, the failure to pass Biden's priorities has caused a huge headache for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, who is fighting liberal apathy only a year after Biden won his state by 10 points.
A fractured agenda would pitch Biden's administration into a deep political crisis at a time when the President's approval ratings are ebbing because of a prolonged pandemic, high gas prices, inflation and a surge of undocumented migrants at the border, which all give Republicans ammunition for 2022.
Assuming some kind of bill eventually does pass, it will saddle progressives with a paradoxical task of selling to their voters a measure they increasingly appear to disdain. But failing to convince their voters of the historic nature of the measure will risk losing even their narrow majorities in midterm elections next year.